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Death Penalty Not the Answer to Bangladesh’s Rape Problem

The Government Should Institute Real Reforms, Provide Services, Remove Barriers to Justice

Students protest against an alleged gang-rape and brutal torture of a woman in the southern district of Noakhali, in Dhaka, Bangladesh on October 8, 2020.  © 2020 Zabed Hasnain Chowdhury/Sipa via AP Images

The Bangladesh government has approved new measures to use the death penalty as punishment for rape, after widespread protests in response to several recent gang rape cases.

It’s a bad decision, not only because capital punishment is inherently inhumane and should be abolished, but because it is not a real solution to sexual violence. There is no conclusive evidence that it curbs any crime, including rape, and it could end up deterring reporting or even encouraging rapists to murder their victims to reduce the likelihood of arrest.

Bringing in the death penalty is easy. What takes work – and is urgently needed – is to overhaul a justice system in which survivors are systematically ignored and maligned, and to ensure they have access to health services and legal support. Sexual assault crimes are underreported, but even when survivors take the brave step of reporting the crime, their cases are rarely properly investigated or prosecuted. In Bangladesh, the low conviction rate for rape gives rapists every reason to be confident that they will get away with their crimes.

Earlier this year, the High Court ordered the Law Ministry to form a commission within 30 days to address the troubling rise of sexual violence. Over 9 months later, the commission still hasn’t been created. Activists are also calling on the government to pass a witness protection law which the Law Commission first drafted almost 15 years ago. Women’s groups helped draft a sexual harassment law years ago, but this too hasn’t moved forward.

The Rape Law Reform Coalition – which brings together many women’s rights groups, and explicitly opposes the death penalty for rape – drafted a 10-point to-do list that the Bangladesh government could start on today. This includes changing the definition of rape to include all victims, regardless of gender identity or marital status, prohibiting the use of character evidence in rape trials, training police and court officials on sexual and gender-based violence, and providing sexuality education to all children.

The real question is whether the government will take the easy way out, or finally listen to activists and start real reform.

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